The clay pot (or gur) has long been a central feature of the cultures of Papua New Guinea’s Markham Valley, such as that of the Adzera people. These pots are superior for cooking bananas, a staple of traditional diets in this area and a central element of life in the seasonal savannah environment of the Valley.
Having been domesticated in PNG, bananas have been part of life here since ancient times, and local tribes have bred a great variety of bananas with different qualities and uses. When I stopped for a chat about local food with a tribal member, I got a virtual soliloquy about bananas, including a list of 15 types—red, orange, and other. Sitting with my host in his yaung—a traditional sacred cultural meeting place—in the shade of a giant mango tree, I contemplated the deep interconnectedness between the people of this landscape and the luscious yellow fruits that grow so prolifically here.
I was treated to the traditional meal with which guests are welcomed in this culture, starting with an opening course of kulau, or fresh coconut. And then, of course, came the bananas. When my host served me gananzub da umatnyari, a fragrant mash of taro and ripe marafri (a short, pale banana that local culture prohibits selling), I inquired how such dishes are prepared. He demonstrated the answer with a shapely and robust wooden stirring stick and a broad, strong clay pot in which the ingredients had been cooked.
Next up on the three-course menu was a succulent dish composed of jirab (a long, red banana) simmered with a whole chicken in coconut milk and served straight from a gur, with a side of pumpkin leaves. While these unique, traditional recipes would have been tasty cooked in any type of vessel, I realized that there was something special about the clay pot that was taking my meal to a higher level.
These pots have a strong and noble tradition in the Markham Valley. Clay deposits are tucked into the hills that border local peoples’ ancestral territory, and the communities have long traded gurs with their neighbors up and down the Valley. It is the role of women to harvest and grade the clay to a very high standard, removing stones and pounding it until smooth. Then the men coil, shape, and decorate the pot with coconut shell tools, holding it between their feet as they shape it instead of using a wheel.
Despite the artistry and venerable age of this pot-making tradition, the gur is being rapidly replaced in many parts of Melanesia with industrial metal pots. A perception of these pots as more modern is enough to overcome their inferior cooking properties, increased cleaning problems, and risk of metallic contaminants.
In some communities, however—like the one in which I was enjoying my delicious meal—the clay pot tradition remains strong. Master potter Jack Marambini took me through the process of making one, all the while explaining how much he loves this work.
I also talked food, pots, and bananas with phenomenal husband-and-wife team Jen Baing and Bao Waiko, who farm in the Valley and host a local television program called Café Niugini. With charm and enthusiasm, Café Niugini lights up PNG television screens with imagery and explanation of local culinary traditions from across this extraordinary country, pointing out the interconnections among healthy landscapes, robust cultures, traditional farming systems, local know-how, and healthy food.
Through their NGO, Savé PNG (Savé is a Tok Pisin word for “knowledge”), Jen and Bao have also established an annual Banana Festival in the Markham Valley to celebrate the banana cultures of the area. The festival gathers locals and people from across the region and the country to learn more about this important staple and the many ways to grow, prepare, and cook it.
In the process of celebrating bananas, the Banana Festival has drawn attention to many other aspects of local biocultural diversity. For example, during construction of the giant Tsitsipi lattice upon which the community’s bananas are displayed, the community called for an all-but-disappeared plant, the tatagum, a bright orange gourd with a large oily seed. The plant is edible in a variety of ways, but also strikingly beautifies a Tsitsipi structure. Due to this request, this age-old local plant is being brought back into the village, and the culinary culture of the Markham Valley remains strong for another generation.